Labels

While making the social media rounds, I met the blogger Orpheus, who describes himself with these words:

I have had works published in many magazines over the past fifteen years, from Historical to Fiction in the UK and Overseas. Yet still I am classed as an amateur in many senses of the word. For one is not a true writer until they have published their first book.

This brings up some interesting questions: What actually qualifies you to be called a writer? And why are we so interested in labeling people in the first place?

The question of what makes you a writer has come up everywhere from writers’ forums to science fiction conventions, with everyone from new writers to bestselling authors to random people in the panel audience weighing in. Unsurprisingly, the professional authors tend to be protective of their job class. One big name writer at a local con made a point of telling everyone, including those of us with a few New York-published novels under our belts, that we couldn’t be considered professional writers unless writing was our sole source of income. That’s a rapidly dwindling population, isn’t it?

This anxiety over a different but related term – professional – reminds me of another field, the one that happens to pay my bills while I try to scrape together a few cents from writing. “Librarian” is a term that most people apply to anyone who works in a library, but within the field of librarianship there are several distinct job classes with different names. The person you see at the checkout desk is probably a Library Aide or Library Clerk, a paraprofessional position that does not require an advanced degree. Librarians typically work in the reference department or in management, they usually have Masters degrees, and they often fiercely defend their professional status. I do happen to have my Masters, but I try hard not to be a jerk about it. I wouldn’t want to be accused of this kind of behavior.**

But this anxiety over professional status isn’t surprising when you look at the state of the field. Libraries are closing all over the country. The average person on the street is often surprised that anyone goes to the library anymore when “you can find everything on the internet,” and many city council members and government funding authorities seem to think the same way. When librarians leave or retire, their positions are often filled – if at all – by lower-paid paraprofessionals. It’s easy for librarians to feel like an endangered species, and when anyone feels threatened, they tend to lash out.

Which explains why people throw labels around, and why they get a lot of heartburn over how those labels are defined. If you’re desperate to protect yourself, clinging to an indentity is one way to go. That identity, that label, is going to become so important to you that you have to defend it against all threats, including from people who want to loosen the definition so it applies to them, too. If you’re clinging to a label that defines you in opposition to someone else, you won’t be able to tolerate their trying to change it.

As for Orpheus, I responded by saying, “Pooh. Writers write.” That’s the definition. If you want more details about a writer’s publication status, you can ask, “Are you a published author? Are you self-published? Traditionally published? Are you a full-time writer?” Just be prepared for irritated sighs at your nosiness. These questions are relevant if you’re looking for a writing coach or if someone asks you for a CV. Outside of that, throwing labels around and angrily defending them is just aggression.

**BTW, I love the Annoyed Librarian. I don’t always agree with her, but I appreciate her take on some of the sillier aspects of the profession.

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